Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Why shouldn't my life be an open book? Only people with something to hide worry about surveillance and tracking.

There was a time (not long ago, either) when we had enough respect for other people that we'd be horrified at the thought of rummaging around in their private affairs. And we had enough self-respect to (politely) make sure that nobody snooped around in our business, either.

Because self-disclosure is very fashionable these days (I think of all the families and couples who have aired their intimate secrets on national television) we've become a nation obsessed with rooting out each other's secrets and hanging out everyone's laundry -- clean, dirty, and just plain private.

People who say they have nothing to hide often seem to do so with a gleam in their eye and an accusing finger pointed at someone else. But I guarantee there is not a person anywhere (short of a spiritual aesthete) who wants every aspect of their life publicly known. Though the media would have us think otherwise, wanting privacy is not about hiding your dirty laundry, it is about being free from others' probing eyes. There is a very crucial distinction.

If you really believe that your life is an open book, let me ask you a few questions. Do you close the door when you go to the bathroom? Do you try not to pass gas in mid-conversation? Do you resist the urge to scratch your genitals or pick your nose while others are watching you? Do you tone down arguments with your mate when your boss walks in the room? Do you sit a little straighter and dress a little nicer when you want to impress someone?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you are a normal human being. You are also -- like it or not -- a privacy advocate. (If you answered no to any of them you need a crash course in social behavior.) Everything I just named involves a distinction between the private self and the public self. But these are just the things I knew we'd all agree on. There are as many other activities requiring and deserving of privacy as there are people.

As far as I'm concerned, as long as we are not hurting anyone, all of our other activities have the same right to be protected from the observation of others. Do you have a terrible singing voice but occasionally like to belt out a tune in the shower? Do you write gushy love poetry? Draw moustaches on photos of supermodels? Drink milk from the carton? Bite your fingernails? Bite your toenails? Suck your thumb? Sleep with a teddy bear? Perform rain dances in your living room? Wear a superman cape to mop your kitchen? Have meaningful conversations with your goldfish? Actually, you probably don't do any of these things (and it's absolutely none of my business if you do), but I'm sure we could each expand the list with a few idiosyncrasies of our own.

Do these sorts of things hurt anybody? Sheesh, no. Are they weird? Yeah, maybe, which is why we might not want our neighbor, or the NBC film crew, or the agent from the NSA watching us do them.

The need to have time alone, to engage in activities (or make purchases) in private is not the guilty response of a person who has something to hide, it is a place of refuge for our psyche which, for good or bad, is highly attuned to other's opinions and needs to let its hair down once in a while. The stresses of living in society with other people are enormous. If we never had the opportunity to relax, be ourselves, do something maybe a little bit weird (though ultimately harmless) I think we'd all go mad.

So give yourself and your neighbor a little rest from each other. Enjoy your time alone, enjoy being unobserved. And don't point fingers at others who want to enjoy the same freedom.

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CASPIAN
Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering
An information clearinghouse and resource for community and national action

© 1999-2005 Katherine Albrecht. All rights reserved.